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A student-led initiative addresses COVID vaccines, health equity in Mass. jails

Close up of the stacked hands of three physicians with different ethnicities in solidarity.
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This article is part of Harvard Medical School’s continuing coverage of COVID-19.

In 2021, during the height of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, outbreaks of COVID-19 in jails and prisons were occurring across the U.S., and the incidence of infection among incarcerated individuals was five times greater than that seen in the general population.

When vaccines against SARS-CoV-2 first became available in early 2021, however, students launched a volunteer effort to visit Massachusetts county jails, not only to provide accurate information about the coronavirus, vaccinations, and COVID-19 to people who were incarcerated, but afterward to look at lessons learned and how to apply them to future pathogen outbreaks.

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In a broad, collaborative effort, the students partnered with clinical leaders from Tufts Medical Center, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and Massachusetts General Hospital, and with students from Tufts, Harvard Divinity School, HMS, Harvard School of Dental Medicine, and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, along with faith leaders from Boston’s Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church and Roxbury Presbyterian Church and county sheriff’s departments in Massachusetts.

Small groups, usually consisting of at least one faith leader, one clinician, and one student visited 12 men’s and women’s jail facilities in nine counties during spring 2021 to talk to individuals and answer questions about vaccines and illness caused by the coronavirus.